Top Navy officials this week said the service’s budget plan to buy only one more San Antonio-class (LPD-17) Flight II amphibious transport dock ship, LPD-32, and end the program buys time for long term assessments to decide on the future of the amphibious force.
The Navy’s fiscal year 2023 budget request is seeking $1.7 billion to procure the future LPD-32 amphibious transport dock, with contract award expected in June 2023 and ship delivery by February 2029. When the initial budget details were released last month, Navy Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton told reporters the Navy was planning to end the Flight II vessels with the third ship, LPD-32.
However, the Marine Corps’ top listed unfunded requirement in FY ‘23 is $250 million in advanced procurement funds for another Flight II LPD-17 ship, LPD-33 (Defense Daily, April 1).
“So the plan, as you see, adds an LPD in FY ‘23 and that, frankly, will buy time for the Force Structure Assessment…to go through its paces, to finish the amphibious study that [the Secretary of the Navy] asked to have done and to have that inform in [Program Objective memorandum (POM)] ‘24 or even POM ‘25 what the future of the amphibious ships will look like,” Jay Stefany, Performing the Duties of Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, told reporters during a media roundtable on April 20.
Stefany said the decision may ultimately call for a modified LPD or new hull and when they would be needed, but the current budget plans allow time for that.
“If you look at the building profile, there would not need to be another LPD or some other amphib bought until ‘25 because we do have the ‘23 ship in the budget,” he added.
Stefany said by FY ‘23 the Navy will have the Force Structure Assessment and that year the Navy will start the process that goes into starting a new program or continuing a modified version of the current LPD program.
“We may ultimately decide to do a modification, you know Block III if you will, or Flight III for LPD, we don’t know. But I think the idea was we would start the process in ‘22. When the actual ship might show up is pending the process happening,” Stefany said.
Vice Adm. Scott Conn, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities, N9, acknowledged congressional action will impact the plans as well.
“I think obviously Congress gets a vote and so as Mr. Stefany said, we have an amphibious study that is reporting out, we have a pending Force Structure Assessment that will be done and Congress is going to pass their vote on the ‘23 shipbuilding plan in the upcoming months. So all options are on the table. Obviously I’m going to support the president’s budget and see what decisions are made in the future.”
Indeed, members of Congress have already expressed strong opposition to ending the LPD-17 Flight II procurement at LPD-32.
Earlier this month during a panel at the Navy league Sea Air Space expo, both Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, and Ranking Member Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said they support the Marines’ request to start funding LPD-33 in FY ‘23 (Defense Daily, April 5).
“I think [Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger] and [Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl] make a really powerful argument to all of us, and I think that’s one of those items that’s going to change,” Courtney said.
Last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) inserted language into the FY ‘22 defense authorization bill extending by one year the Navy’s allowance to procure LPD-32, LPD-33 and LPD-34 and one America-class amphibious assault ship, LHA-10, at once. A bill report said the Navy previously estimated a block buy like this would save about $1 billion over four separate procurement contracts (Defense Daily, Sept. 28, 2021).
Earlier in 2021, Stefany told a SASC panel while the Navy reached a “handshake agreement” with shipbuilder HII [HII] on what the deal would look like, he said the Pentagon wanted to defer the decision until after it has worked on the FY ‘23 budget request cycle and decide on the new overall force structure (Defense Daily, June 9, 2021).
In the last year the Navy submitted a budget request with plans past that year, in FY ‘21 under the Trump administration, the Navy was planning to procure LPD-33 in 2025 with delivery set for 2031.
The LPD-17 Flight II ships were chosen to be built as the winner of the LX(R) program that sought to replace the 12 aging Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry-class (LCD-41/49) amphibious ships. The first Flight II ship is LPD-30 and, according to budget documents, it is expected to be delivered in 2025.